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Toni Morrison

Writing the Moral Imagination


Valerie Smith


Blackwell Introduction to Literature Series

Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014 (First hardback edition, 2012)

Paperback reissue. ix+153 p. ISBN 978-1118917695. £18.99


Reviewed by Claudine Raynaud

Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier



Valerie Smith’s incisive and concise (136 pp.) presentation of Toni Morrison’s entire oeuvre is a welcome addition to the series of introductions to major authors in Wiley Blackwell’s collection that caters to both students and non-specialists. Her powerful monograph situates Morrison as one of the most innovative social and cultural critics of the 20th and 21st centuries and explains how her universality stems precisely from her being firmly steeped in African American culture and history. Smith is teaching at Princeton and has benefited from discussions with Morrison when she was writing the book.

At the start of her study, Smith places a summary of Morrison’s programmatic essays for African American critics that she mainly gathers from “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” (1989) and Playing in the Dark (1992): texts should be interpreted from the point of view of African American culture itself; canonical 19th-century texts should be read in relation to the Africanist presence on American soil; contemporary literature also needs to be examined in relation to this presence/absence of Africans and African Americans. Smith applies this agenda to her own endeavor. She explains how the reader is called upon to participate as his/her imagination is drastically challenged through Morrison’s writing technique: profoundly collaborative, her art stages an encounter between reader and writing. This introduction provides a short biography [8-12] and underlines Morrison’s role as editor at Random House and teacher. It highlights her intervention at the crossroads of various artistic fields: dance, theater, the visual arts, opera, music (jazz) and her introductions to collections, respectively on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court and O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. After an analysis of Morrison’s conception of language (Nobel Prize lecture, 1993) that exposes strategies of racialization, and more generally sexist and racist oppression as part and parcel of discursive practices, it closes on Smith’s own brief reflection on and critique of the notion of “post-racialism.”

The book is divided into a series of chapters that follows Morrison’s production chronologically (ten novels when this introduction was written). It regroups novels two by two, with one chapter entirely devoted to Beloved and another including the six books for children that Morrison wrote with her son Slade, next to a study of Love and A Mercy. The epilogue is dedicated to the last novel Morrison had just published, Home (2012).

The Bluest Eye opens the analysis of Morrison’s production with summaries of the contents—the story, the characters, time and place—and a presentation of the structure, alternating with examinations of the intervention of the novel as cultural critique. Smith views this 1970 text as a study in self-loathing, scapegoating and alienation. More generally, the novel indirectly addresses in narrative layers “the consequences of desiring qualities and possessions that will always be unattainable” [22]. Smith then reads Sula as “confounding binary oppositions” [32] and building on the place of irony in African American culture to underline the instability of meaning. She outlines the contrasts (e.g. Helene vs. Eva, Nel vs. Sula) that eventually fail to appear as clear-cut in the course of the novel. She even offers a new reading of the scene when the two girls perform a ritual as “a pantomime of the death of childhood innocence” [36]. She further locates the focus of the novel in the role of the witness—that she terms “the ethics of spectatorship” [37]—and the place and the function of evil. A brief summary of the chapter signals that both novels scrutinize racialized and gendered cultural norms in different ways.

With Song of Solomon, Morrison shifted from a female locus to a male one. Smith sees the novel’s broad scope—its multigenerational view of African American history—as heralding future works in Morrison’s canon, such as Beloved. The protagonist’s journey south reverses the migration pattern and helps him recover a sense of self after a personal and collective history of fragmentation and displacement. Smith explains how Morrison challenges a narrow vision of history by stressing vernacular knowledge and cultural heritage. Tar Baby is linked to the other works through the common themes of the impact of slavery and of hegemonic cultural norms on African Americans, but also of capitalism on the natural world. It is characterized as a radical departure from the rest of her production because of its setting (a Caribbean island) and the prominence of its white protagonists. It being coupled with Song of Solomon, however, rests primarily on their chronological proximity.

The third chapter, on the neo-slave narrative Beloved, references two studies that read the novel within the context of the 1980s (Reagan’s presidency and the liberals’ response to his policies) and in relation to the prison-industrial complex (cf. The New Jim Crow). While the novel centers on the effects of slavery, memory and forgetting on African American consciousness, Smith stresses its broad scope and international reception, notably through its treatment of trauma. She examines the relation between historical fact and the writing of fiction—inventing the main character’s life, imagining her and the other slaves’ inner lives—that Morrison labels “literary archeology.” Smith’s analysis rests on Morrison’s own reading to then focus on the body (in pain and healed) in the text, as writing fights the erasure of the corporeal in answer to the treatment of slaves under the Peculiar Institution. She adroitly closes this chapter on the question of language (its inadequacy), the issue of discourse, narrative and violence (can one report atrocities without being obscene?), and on the sections at the center of the novel that are the “unspeakable and unspoken thoughts” of the three women (Sethe, Denver and Beloved). Hard as it may be to be comprehensive within the constraints of a monograph—considering the richness of the text and the innumerable studies devoted to its analysis—greater emphasis on genre (the Gothic novel, the neo-slave narrative, ghost stories) in the body of the text, as opposed to their relegation to notes, might have been helpful for the intended readership.

The following chapter deals with the other two novels of the trilogy, Jazz and Paradise. In the wake of Beloved, they offer revisions of key periods in US history by bringing to life the unacknowledged, invisible experiences of African Americans. Jazz revises conventional ideas about the Great Migration. The black migrants, lured by the City, objectify others and feel the separation from their native Southern land and families. Smith insists on the fact that jazz music shapes the aesthetics of the novel, but the format of this introduction forces her to go through a linear description of story and characters that draws the reader away from the singularity of that work. The last part of the analysis, however, goes back to Morrison’s tour de force—Jazz is claimed to be “her boldest narrative experiment” [84]—making the narrator and the novel merge, exploring the major characters’ solo improvisations on a recurrent melody, and invoking the intimate reciprocal relationship between writer and reader as equal contributors to the creative experience. Paradise proves the most difficult novel to present: a summary of the plot, as well as a chronology, cannot account for the actual reading experience and for the quality of the writing. Here Smith refers to Morrison’s own intervention on the Oprah Winfrey Show to clarify the motives behind that novel, set in the 1970s. A meditation on utopia and exclusionary practices, Paradise is an exploration of patriarchy and racial biases through the opposition between the members of the all-black town of Ruby and the Convent, a commune of women, whom they destroy because it threatens them. Noting how disorienting the text is for the reader, Smith also briefly explores two of the narrative projects within the text that shed light on its complexity: Patricia Best’s genealogical project and the Convent women’s “loud dreaming,” a process of shared narrations. This is a welcome incursion into the metatexual level of Morrison’s writing process that is also present in her other works and thus might have called for greater emphasis.

The last chapter starts with a review of Morrison’s books for children that are as challenging as her novels, hence the controversies that arose upon their publication. She carefully explains how each entry in the Who’s Got Game? series departs from the original fable to offer Morrison’s own variants: an emphasis on collaboration, a study in bullying and a lesson on the value of preparedness. The last book she reviews, which is also devised for a readership of young adults, Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004) marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. It is a book of photographs with legends that tell what the students may think. Smith shows that the book directly addresses young readers and considers memory, even the memory of events that have not been actually experienced, rather than history, as crucial to young people’s awareness of their relation to the world and to their sense of responsibility. This chapter convincingly shows how Morrison’s specific involvement in keeping the memory of segregation alive coincides with her novelistic production and her deep pedagogical concerns.

Love centers on the relationship between two young childhood friends, Heed the Night and Christine, and their complex relationship to Bill Cosey, who marries Heed when she is eleven. Smith explains that Morrison transposed in that novel the incestuous relationship between her own childhood friend and the girl’s father (“the paternal and the erotic,” [115]). The main theme is that of love and betrayal against the backdrop of racial segregation. These bygone times are nostalgically recalled by some of the characters in contrast with the state of racial relations in the 1990s, the present time of the novel. The narrative is structured like a murder mystery: the narrator “L,” whose italicized passages are allusive and haunting, is the one who killed the rich entrepreneur and owner of the sea resort and falsified his will. Smith here quotes Jean Wyatt’s analysis of the coincidence of “temporal disorder” with the traumatic events to highlight the specific texture of that fiction. Given its intense exploration of female friendship, the link with Sula and The Bluest Eye could have been more explicitly foregrounded, A Mercy returns to the theme of slavery, but that time the novel is set in seventeenth century colonial America and the characters are multiethnic and multiracial. Rehearsing the now familiar trope of a female household, the novel is told from different narrative viewpoints with the black slave Florens’s chapters tracing her quest for her lover, the African blacksmith, in the present tense. Florens is literate; she can read and she reads signs in her environment, in nature and in society. The present is the time of trauma: Florens has been given away by her mother to help her escape sexual abuse, a gesture she has experienced as abandonment and not as a mercy. The novel is also about greed as the master, Jacob Vaark, succumbs to hubris. Smith reads Florens’s writing as her attempt to hold together her contradictions and the last chapter as a love letter written by her mother. One senses that the dearth of studies on this last novel at the time may explain her cautious approach.

The five-page epilogue on Home goes over what Morrison herself has stated: her desire for a revision of the 1950s as a period of progress and aptly closes on a summary of her 1997 essay entitled “Home.” In this novel Morrison tackles Klan violence, segregation, the Korean War, post-traumatic stress disorder and eugenics. It starts with a childhood memory of the two protagonists, a brother and a sister, who witness the aftermath of a lynching. They will have to come to terms with their fears, their pasts, and give the dead a decent burial to find their true home. The study of the novel relies on descriptive elements, for in this case, as with A Mercy, scholarly scrutiny is just beginning.

To support her views and construct her analysis, Smith relies on the extensive body of critical studies (Barbara Christian, Deborah McDowell, Cheryl Wall, Barbara Johnson, Jean Wyatt, Lucille Fultz, The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison, among others) of Morrison’s production, on interviews that Morrison has given throughout her career, on her essays, and on the forewords that she has generously provided. Two major collections Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994) and Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin (2008) are indispensable tools for Morrison scholars. Smith’s synthesis is both cogent and original. Never limiting itself to giving an account of the current state of research, it offers fruitful perspectives for future studies and more often than not tries to link the works through their common structure and themes. As it addresses all the aspects of the writer’s production, the novels as well as the books for children and young adults, the essays and the fiction, one sees convergences and key concerns beyond those rehearsed by the critics who have focused on history, memory, motherhood, violence: the centrality of childhood, the recurrence of vulnerability, the erotic, poetry, an aesthetics that defiantly and purposefully confuses form and content, humor, religion, to name just a few. The readers of that introduction will want to read more (a bibliography is provided), to make other forays into even more innovative ways of engaging Morrison’s work. In sum, Valerie Smith has risen to the challenge of presentation and synthesis, while making a personal contribution to Morrison scholarship.


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